DeSantis’ 2024 Opponents Are Unfazed: ‘No One Is Afraid of Him’
Ron DeSantis has a pretty straightforward theory for why he could do what Ted Cruz (or Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or Scott Walker or …) couldn’t. When all those once-promising presidential candidates tried to take down Donald Trump in 2016, they were doing so in a crowded field, backstabbing one another as Trump consolidated a movement behind him and rode it all the way to the White House. This time around, the Florida governor is promising he’ll go mano a mano with Donald — and take him down.
Just Thursday, he told donors — according to The New York Times — that “you have basically three people at this point that are credible in this whole thing,” meaning, “Biden, Trump, and me. And I think of those three, two have a chance to get elected president: Biden and me.”
But DeSantis’ plan for a one-on-one primary requires him to bury and bully other challengers out of relevance. And as he prepares to formally announce his candidacy, there’s been one snag with that plan.
According to seven GOP operatives and pollsters supporting 2024 contenders other than Trump or DeSantis, the other contenders — including declared and likely candidates such as Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Chris Christie — now believe DeSantis is, in their estimations, “a paper tiger” whose less-than-stellar performance in his “shadow campaign” has convinced them he can be torn down as the “only” non-Trump alternative. And that belief, the operatives say, has only grown in recent weeks, as DeSantis’ poll numbers have wavered.
“No one is afraid of him,” one GOP megadonor who has decided to hold off on backing DeSantis tells Rolling Stone.
Simply put, several of these camps insist DeSantis isn’t good enough at this juncture to topple Trump, and smell Team Ron’s “blood in the water,” the opposing operatives and pollsters say, in part based on their own data. Therefore, in this view, it’s a wide opening to fight to undermine and defeat DeSantis, not the former president, with the hopes of inheriting his supporters.
Despite Team DeSantis’ repeated vows that this is not 2016, it appears the other 2024 Republicans are banking on a primary melee that looks exactly like what the Florida governor wants to avoid.
“The spring and early summer after [DeSantis’ 2024] announcement will generate some positive headlines and calm down some donor nerves, but the candidate’s retail skills and relatability and organizational issues — which have all been raised to date — probably aren’t going to get fixed in that span,” says one operative linked to a Super PAC backing a different 2024 GOP contender. “The best-funded, most competent political organization in the world can’t make up for the fundamental limitations of the candidate. That is why a lot of people in this business have been DeSantis skeptics for a long time.”
For at least a year, in the upper ranks of Pence World, there has been strong skepticism of a DeSantis campaign. The prevailing belief has been, according to a source familiar with the matter, that Florida’s MAGA-fied governor would quickly wilt in the face of media and political scrutiny on the national stage, leaving the door wide open for a different challenger to Trump’s throne.
Team DeSantis, of course, sees it very differently. “Political consultants are dreaming of big paychecks and seeing their names in a story, so of course they are telling their clients they still have a shot,” says Erin Perrine, spokeswoman for the pro-DeSantis Super PAC Never Back Down. “Those consultants should forget about the pipe dreams and tell their clients the truth — that this is and always has been a two-man race in the Republican primary — and Ron DeSantis isn’t even an announced candidate.”
For now, the polls are full of mixed news for the Florida governor. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling analysis, he has separated himself from the pack, polling at a shade under 26 percent — 20 points ahead of Pence, the next candidate behind him. But despite an impressive run late last year and earlier this year, the governor’s numbers have been in a long, slow slide. And once within striking distance, DeSantis is now nowhere near Trump, who as of Thursday was at 53 percent.
Trump allies are, predictably, bashing the governor as he prepares to enter the race: “Ron DeSantis is limping into 2024 with an arrow through his Achilles,” Taylor Budowich, Trump’s ex-spokesman who now leads the Super PAC MAGA Inc., tells Rolling Stone. “Everyone but Ron can see it, but hubris and ambition can mask a lot. Every dollar spent elongating his inevitable exit from the race is a dollar spent in support of Joe Biden and the Democrats.”
But even among the other contenders, the 2016-like backbiting has already begun. Take the case of Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur and one of the 2024 GOP aspirants. On its face, his campaign is an insurgent run for higher office, a pledge from a younger conservative to be even Trumpier than the twice-impeached former president. Ramaswamy has focused his ire primarily on one candidate — DeSantis — while leaving others largely untouched. On Twitter, he’s accused the Florida governor of copying his talking points, hiding from unfriendly media interviews, and crony capitalism in throwing Disney “special privileges” in Florida before trying to take them away.
Ramaswamy, per FiveThirtyEight is polling at 3.4 percent — a robust 49 points behind Trump.
Also-rans were a major problem for Cruz in his attempt to beat Trump in 2016. The Texas senator established himself as the clear alternative to Trump after the other major contenders dropped. But Cruz didn’t spend a single day in a one-on-one race with the future president, as former Ohio Gov. John Kasich hung on despite having virtually a zero shot at the nomination. In May 2016, Cruz finally gave up after losing in Indiana. Kasich ended his campaign the next day.
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